Sunset Embrace(2)

By: Sandra Brown

She levered herself up on her elbows, spread her thighs wide, and bore down with the pressure. Blood pounded against her eardrums and behind eyes that were squeezed shut. Her jaws ached from clenching them; her lips were peeled back into a gruesome mask. During a brief respite, she huffed precious air in and out of her lungs. Then the pain came again. And again.

She screamed, expending the last of her energy on one final thrust, tunneling all her body's weight to that one narrow place that rent in two.

And then she was free of it.

She fell back exhausted, gulping air and grateful now for the raindrops that coolly bathed her face. There was no sound in the thick forest save for the bellowslike heaving of her lungs and the rain dripping heavily. The absence of sound was eerie, startling,, strange. There had been no bursting cry of life from the baby she had just birthed, no movement.

Disregarding her earlier prayer, she struggled to sit up again and moved her long skirt aside. Animal sounds of grief and misery tripped over her bruised lips when she saw the infant, little more than a ball of bluish flesh, lying dead between her thighs without ever having known life. The cord that had nourished it had been its instrument of death. The ropy tissue was wound tightly around the baby's throat. Its face was pinched. It had taken a suicidal plunge into the world. The girl wondered if it had chosen to die, instinctively knowing that it would be despised even by its mother, preferring death to a life of degradation.

"At feast, little one, you didn't have to suffer life," she whispered.

She fell back onto the spongy ground and stared sightlessly at the weeping sky, knowing that she was fevered and probably delirious, and that thoughts about babies killing themselves in the womb were crazy. But it' made her feel better to think that her baby hadn't wanted to live any more than she had wanted ft to, that it had wanted to die just as she did now.

She should pray for forgiveness at being glad for her own infants death, but she was too tired. Surely God would understand. It had been lie, after all, who had afflicted her with such pain. Didn't she deserve to rest now?

Her eyes closed against the rain that poured over her face like a healing balm. She couldn't remember a time when she had known this kind of peace. She welcomed it.

Now she could die.

* * *

"You reckon she's dead?" the young voice croaked hoarsely.

"I don't know," a slightly older voice whispered back. "Poke her and see."

"I ain't a'gonna poke her. You poke her."

The tall, rangy boy knelt on bony knees next to the prone, still figure. Carefully, as he had been taught by his pa, he propped his rifle, barrel up, against the tree trunk. His hands twitched nervously as he stretched them toward the girl.

"You're scared, ain'tcha?" the younger boy challenged.

"No, I ain't scared," the older hissed back. Having to prove it, he extended his index finger and placed it next to the girl's upper lip, not quite touching her. "She's breathing," he said in relief. "She ain't dead."

"What do you reckon . . . godamighty, Bubba, there's blood a'coming from under her dress."

Reflexively Bubba jumped back. His brother Luke was right. A trickle of blood was forming a crimson pool beneath the hem of her dress, which barely covered her knees. She wasn't wearing stockings and the leather of her shoes was cracked and peeling. The laces had been knotted together after numerous breaks.

"You figure she's been gunshot or something? Maybe we ought to look—"

"I know, I know," Bubba said impatiently. "Keep your damn trap shut."

"I'm gonna tell Ma you're cussin' if—"

"Shut up!" Bubba whirled around to stare down his younger brother. "I'll tell her you peed in old lady Watkin's wash water after she got on to you 'bout makin' too much noise around the camp." Luke was properly cowed, and Bubba turned back to the girl. Gingerly, and disbelieving he had actually wanted to go hunting that morning, he lifted the hem of her ratty brown dress. "Hellfire," he shrieked, dropping the skirt and jumping to his feet; Unfortunately, the soiled cloth didn't fall back to cover the lifeless form lying between the girl's slender thighs. Both boys stared in horror at the dead infant Luke made a strange sound in his throat.